It’s rare to find an advice book that’s not loaded with click-bait How-Tos, but is smartly contextual and patient in its explanations. Juliette Cezzar’s newly released The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design hits the right notes in this regard; in fact, it’s a strong contender for the kind of book you’ll want to keep under your pillow for whenever things feel too much and a little uncertain.
In clear and articulate writing, Cezzar—a professor at The New School’s Parsons School of Design and AIGA New York president between 2014-16—highlights contemporary perspectives that can help professionals, students, and educators explore the ever-expanding field of design, navigate its changing currents, and find their own place in it. It asks the right questions, offers slow-burning context, and is bolstered with vigorous interviews by practicing designers.
Whether in her role as teacher or writer, listening to Cezzar can make one feel safe and clear-headed, but also brave within a landscape that can be likened to a rollicking, boisterous sea-saw of conflicting messages and fragmenting change. It’s why we wanted to talk to her about design education more broadly: what’s good to know—and what’s good not to know—when entering institutions? What might Cezzar be able to teach us about teaching, and just as crucially, about being taught?
What was the most common thing that came up when you asked people about their experiences with design education in the U.S. during your interviews for the book?
Juliette Cezzar: I asked each person very specific questions about their particular education. It was interesting to get the responses because everyone, whether they had a BFA in design or not, said they had picked up their ability to communicate through a Bachelor’s education—to read, write, and think clearly. Their takeaway from undergraduate education was not necessarily technical or skills-based.
Where did they generally pick up technical skills then?
JC: On a philosophical level, all learning is self-learning. That’s something to begin with. Most of the people I interviewed graduated from design schools in the last 15 years, and even in those years, everything has changed. The iPhone didn’t come out until 2007, for example. All of them have a pretty realistic view that anything that they learn technically in the moment is not going to last, nor does it bother them.
Another reason of why I say all learning is self-learning is that certain designers I spoke to, who I thought were very ahead of the curve, would say things like “You know, I’m just not comfortable if I’m comfortable.” They have to keep moving. It was fascinating to see that character quality, and how it can take someone far if they are really comfortable not knowing what is going on in a new context, and can withstand that discomfort long enough to be able to learn how to be in that new context.
This idea of being flexible in a landscape that’s rapidly changing often comes up in conversations around design education. People ask, how can design schools find a balance when standing still is not a good idea, nor is reacting to immediate tech or hiring practices, whose interest is always short term?
For someone who might be applying to various programs, what should they personally look out for in schools so that they’re in an environment that encourages the kind of character quality you’re describing?
JC: The first thing that I would look for is to make sure that the school itself doesn’t say that it has everything figured out. I’m always suspicious when I walk into any kind of education context and someone introduces the school by saying, “We’ve been doing this for X number of years and we’ve got it down!” No one can. So that’s one thing.
Next, I would look for whether the school says it’s great for anybody who comes in, and that everyone is going to have a great experience with the same outcome. That’s also not true.
If a school says, “We have changed things over the years, we’re still in more of an experimental phase”—which is a lot of schools—that’s a good sign.
I would pay attention to what you’re consuming day to day as well. If half your life is online, half your schooling should also be about the online world. It seems completely nonsensical to me that you shouldn’t be trying to facilitate thinking on all platforms, and thinking across platforms. Many schools teach technology, or new media, as a sidecar phenomenon. It’s like, “We’ve got everything sussed out. Here’s our curriculum. Now that there’s these new things, we’re going to put them as an elective in the senior year.”
A big draw for people applying to certain design schools is the cult of the “celebrity” professor. If you’re working with a master designer who simply propagates their own ideas, there’s going to be less emphasis on developing an independent style or the kind of adaptable skills you’ve been describing. What do you feel about personality teaching?
JC: I have so much to say on this topic. The “follow the master” or “cult of personality” method of design teaching is bad in so many different ways. For one thing, with few exceptions, it means that you already have to be like the master to touch his sleeve. You also have to have access. Who gets chosen, and who gets left out? It also delegitimizes everything you learn from everyone else: your peers, your community, the people you work with who aren’t designers. It blocks out whole groups of students who have come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. On top of that, when you’re emulating someone who came up through a different context, you do not completely understand that context.
The design we do is shaped by the world that we live in. We, in turn, by the design that we make, shape that world. It’s that simple.
One of the things that came up in our education panel at the Eye on Design conference last month is the effect of Instagram, inspiration blogs, curated streams, and online portfolios on young designers and students. They really prop up a myth that designers love what they do and do what they love—that you can pay rent with creativity…
JC: With hand lettering…
Exactly. One rarely sees the less glamorous or visually exciting jobs presented on online, curated spaces. How does this affect students, as well as design schools who have to be the ‘bearer-of-bad-news,’ so to speak, and paint a more realistic painting of what it’s like to work in design?
JC: This is where it’s necessary to be a little empathetic towards the design school and educator. If you were teaching in my time or in the early ’90s, when you spoke to a student, you were the only voice that they were hearing about design from. You had the capacity to shape their thinking. Now, when we go into a classroom, we’re competing with everything. There are so many messages, so many ideas. It’s all become democratized.
Where I become frightened by it all is the cult of, “If you’re creative, you will succeed.” The thing that worries me about it is that so much of that rhetoric is to sell… To sell degrees, to sell software, to sell clothing, and other things—there is a confusion between marketing messages and actual cultural ideas. Maybe you can tell it apart at age 50, maybe not. Probably not. At 20, 18, 17, 16… You can’t expect a 17-year-old to be able to tell the difference between an earnestly-felt sentiment and a marketing message. A lot of those messages are directed at women, too. There’s this idea that if you’re a woman, you need to preserve your creative side, as if it’s something for you to nurture and protect.
As an educator, how do you see that gendering of messages from the inspiration industry actually playing out day-to-day on students?
JC: We [at Parsons] are about 85% female, as are a lot of design schools in New York. My students ask me, “If we’re all female, why are all the successful people in the industry male?” It’s a fantastic question. The only part I feel like I have control over, and that they have control over, is checking some of these messages that say, “If you can just be true to yourself and true to your creative side, it will all work out.”
My message is the opposite. It’s: “If you do all the stuff that’s hard for people to do, because most people will not do things that are hard, then that will probably make you money and elevate you to the degree that you want to be in. That’s a much better differentiator. And one within your reach.”
There’s an author called Cal Newport who has a video for 99U where he says, “Do What You Love Is Bullshit.” It’s a great message.
It’s interesting that you say that calling out the problems of inspirational messages is the one thing that you feel you have control over. So often I hear people say that gender inclusivity, and also diversity, in the industry could be encouraged in school by teaching a feminist and post-colonial history that is less European-centric and male-dominated.
JC: I would first ask a depressing question, which is, “Who is teaching design history?” There was a Twitter discussion recently and I was like, “Should I respond?” but I decided against it. Someone asked, “What’s up with students knowing who Walter Gropius is before they know such-and-such?” I’m thinking, “What student knows who Walter Gropius is?”
Most large programs have close to 50% international students at this point. You’re talking about students from so many different backgrounds already.
Before we can get to the point of highlighting different people in history or thinking about post-colonial history, we have to solve the problems of how well students even understand the industrial era and post-industrial era in terms of technology. That baseline has to be there before you can teach characters. For that matter, why do we teach history through characters? That’s a whole other question. My genealogy as a designer is not through specific individuals—it’s through the invention of different technologies and communication patterns.
This goes back to the whole “follow the master” problem. Simply to say, “Oh, there should be a canon of individuals and we will just diversify that canon of individuals,” creates the problem of why we need a canon of individuals in the first place. Are students really unable to contextualize their practice without having greats to look up to? Do we need these names? Are we there yet?
Are there any books you can recommend that present a great introduction to design history from a technological perspective?
Juliette: My favorite is a book called Post-Digital Print by Alessandro Ludovico.
For anyone interested in why designers are such a disaster when it comes to history, I recommend, Graphic Design: History in the Writing, edited by Catherine de Smet and Sara De Bondt.
How would you advise aspiring designers to situate themselves early on in their career? If someone loves food, or music, or fashion, or politics, should they align their skills with those interests while studying?
JC: I would turn the question back on you, a little bit. The purpose of your college education is to broaden your horizons, and to broaden your horizons in the most literal way. You should be like, “Oh my god. I never knew that existed.”
If being fixated on a particular outcome is the only way you’re going to move forward, by all means go for it. I would keep it open though and think, “What I can do to best use my whole self is probably something that I don’t know yet.” Otherwise you’re writing yourself into a very small role and when you get there, you might realize that the thing you thought you were going to do is not very big and is actually disappointing.
For that matter, maybe because of the type of students that design attracts, people don’t come in with big dreams:
I ask people at freshman orientation, “What is your dream?” More than once, I get, “My dream is to be an intern at Vogue.” It’s such a small wish. It breaks my heart. If a student came in and said, “I want to make my own magazine,” it would be different.
It comes down to psychology and not wanting to ask for things, and so on. I would say that your wish should not be to achieve a certain spot, or a certain cubicle. Your wish should be, “I want to be a better person than I am now. How do I get there?”
If design school is the answer to becoming a better person after four years of broadening horizons, then it’s the correct choice for you, whether or not your final outcome is as a designer with your name on a cubicle.